Your Donation Will Be Doubled. Support Today!

Police Unions Are Losing The War on Criminal Justice Reform

Law enforcement organizations have long treated mass incarceration as a job creation program. In 2020, the tide began turning against them.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Law enforcement unions are maybe the most powerful force in politics that most voters never think twice about. By quietly dumping millions of dollars in key prosecutor elections and ballot initiative fights, these organizations manage to affect everything in the criminal legal system’s orbit, usually while flying well beneath the political radar. Police unions are sort of like gravity, if gravity played a significant role in enabling agents of the state to systematically terrorize communities of color without facing meaningful consequences.

In races that take place outside the quadrennial spending bonanzas for control of the White House, these strategic allocations of time and outlays of resources can be decisive in elections, especially since no cohesive pro-reform interest group exists to counteract their influence. (Tight-knit, well-organized police unions can coordinate in ways that the larger but more heterogenous and dispersed coalition of people who favor criminal justice reform cannot.) One recent study found that law enforcement groups have spent about $87 million in local and state elections over the past 20 years, including almost $65 million in Los Angeles alone. At the federal level, their recent campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures approach $50 million, according to The Guardian. 

Such expenditures are savvy investments for police unions, who keenly understand the value of having sympathetic friends in high places. Because prosecutors work so closely with police, they have a strong incentive to develop a friendly relationship with rank-and-file officers, even if earning that trust comes at the price of turning a blind eye to abuse: It is not a coincidence that researchers have tracked the rise of police unions to an increase in on-the-job police killings. In a country where law-and-order rhetoric is deeply embedded in the cultural zeitgeist, if you’re a prosecutor intent on keeping your job, filing charges against the badge-wearing hand that feeds might not feel worth the retaliatory smear campaign that will inevitably follow.

In recent years, however—and especially as a result of the sustained protests of police violence in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis—people have grown more attuned to how these organizations bend the criminal legal system to their will and stymie efforts to reform it. A growing number of elected officials have pledged to refuse the support of law enforcement organizations; in California, a coalition of reform-minded prosecutors has been lobbying for a state bar ethics rule that would prohibit DAs from accepting donations from these sources altogether, arguing that prosecutors cannot ethically prosecute police officers if they are receiving the support of their unions.

“The ties that bind elected officials to police unions must be broken,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote in June. “An elected official considering whether to prosecute officers should not be, in essence, on the political payroll of the agency defending the very same people.”

On Election Day 2020 in California, voters delivered police unions a series of resounding defeats that threaten to flip this time-honored paradigm on its head.

In the race for Los Angeles County District Attorney, reform-oriented challenger George Gascón ousted incumbent Jackie Lacey, earning control of a sprawling office that employs nearly 1,000 line prosecutors and retains jurisdiction over more than 10 million people. Lacey was the clear favorite of law enforcement organizations, who spent some $5 million boosting her candidacy and attacking her opponent’s. And for good reason: During Lacey’s eight years on the job, she reviewed more than 250 fatal shootings by on-duty law enforcement officers. She filed charges in one of them.

Occasionally, Lacey’s penchant for lenience extended beyond even that of high-profile police officials. None other than then-LAPD chief Charlie Beck called on Lacey to charge one of his officers, Clifford Proctor, in the 2015 killing of Brendon Glenn, an unarmed, homeless Black man. Lacey declined. “As independent prosecutors, we’re supposed to look at the evidence and the law,” she said. “And that’s what we did.” When the time came for Lacey to seek re-election, it seems that grateful police unions did not forget her choice.

Gascón’s résumé is one that might seem as if it would appeal to law enforcement types: A former LAPD patrol officer who rose to the rank of assistant chief, he also served as police chief in San Francisco and Mesa, Arizona, and as district attorney in San Francisco, before returning to run for DA in the city where he grew up. But Gascón is among the group of prosecutors who have disclaimed the support of police unions, and his campaign pledges include reducing the population of the county’s chronically overcrowded jail system, reopening investigations of high-profile police shootings that Lacey had closed, and declining to seek the death penalty altogether. For the unions, loyalty apparently extends only so far as it will allow their members to evade accountability.

Their efforts echoed those of the San Francisco Police Officers Association during last year’s DA election, when it spent some $650,000 on, among other things, mailers that declared progressive DA candidate Chesa Boudin to be “the #1 choice of criminals and gang members.” These scaremongering predictions were insufficient to prevent the city’s voters from electing Boudin—also a member of the no-money-from-cop-unions coalition—as Gascón’s successor.

Further down the ballot in 2020, California voters rejected Proposition 20, which would have reclassified certain misdemeanor theft offenses as felonies and reduced the availability of parole. (Incidentally, this would have rolled back the reforms of Proposition 47, a successful 2014 referendum co-authored by Gascón.) In other words, Proposition 20 would have resulted in more incarceration for more people for longer periods of time, which is why law enforcement organizations contributed roughly $2 million to the campaign to pass it. 

Police unions also opposed San Francisco’s Proposition E, which eliminated the city’s minimum police staffing requirement, and Los Angeles’s Measure J, which earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars in public resources for non-police community investment. The Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association, which represents sheriff’s deputies, claimed that Measure J would “cripple public safety,” and local law enforcement organizations combined to spend more than $3.5 million fighting it. Both measures nonetheless passed with overwhelming support.

Law enforcement unions reliably oppose criminal justice reform for the simple reason that any attempts to reduce the criminal justice system’s footprint will make police less relevant. (Over the years, they have opposed everything from body camera mandates to the simple requirement that officers wear nametags.) For them, mass incarceration is the world’s most lucrative job creation machine. To justify their lavish spending habits and the generous rules that apply to their conduct, police always frame themselves as a mere half-step ahead of staving off mass chaos, warning that any abrogation of their authority by naive do-gooders will put everyone in danger. 

What this year’s election results demonstrate is that people understand the lies that infuse this narrative, which conspicuously omits from the ledger the staggering human costs that policing imposes on the communities it purports to keep safe. These losses won’t put an end to incidents of police brutality, or any other strain of rot that pervades the American criminal justice system. But they do signal that police unions are likelier to have to answer for their myriad failures, instead of relying on beneficiaries of their largesse to pretend that these failures do not exist.

Jay Willis is a senior contributor at The Appeal.